McConnell’s GOP has pushed justice reform at home. Why is he blocking it nationally?

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Criminal justice reform

Kelley Paul and her husband, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, have advocated for an overhaul of the federal criminal justice system to give judge’s more flexibility to sentence drug offenders. Kentucky’s ties to the effort include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the state’s senior GOP senator, who has note backed a vote in his chamber until now. Here is previous coverage.

From Sen. Rand Paul to Governor Matt Bevin to lawmakers at the state and local level, Kentucky Republicans have joined Democrats in making criminal justice reform a key component of their legislative agenda.

But, at the federal level at least, it seems a Kentucky Republican is the only thing standing in the way.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is staring down a bipartisan coalition of senators and interest groups pushing for a federal criminal justice reform bill called the First Step Act.

If the measure becomes law, it would boost rehabilitation programs for prisoners finishing their sentences, give judges greater discretion when sentencing nonviolent offenders, particularly for drug offenses, and improve living conditions for women in prison.

It would also lower the “three strikes” penalty that calls for offenders to face life in prison after a third crime. The life sentence would be reduced to 25 years, and the type of offenders who could receive the penalty would be reduced.

“I think there’s widespread support within the party for it and I think that’s because Republicans know it’s the right thing to do,” said Tres Watson, the spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky.

The effort has included a full court press in Kentucky from Paul and his wife, Kelley Paul, who has championed the effort for months. Both made TV and radio appearances this week, hoping to convince McConnell to put the measure up for a vote.

McConnell, who in October said that if supporters wrangled enough votes the chamber would find time to take up the bill, last week expressed doubt that the Senate would have the time.

He said that after the Senate determines how much support there is for the legislation, it would have to be weighed against the Senate’s other priorities, which include funding the government and passing the farm bill -- a priority for McConnell.

“We don’t have a whole lot of time left,” he warned.

Proponents of the bill see it differently.

“There is plenty of time for this bill,” said Holly Harris the executive director of the Justice Action Network. “Plenty of time. What is challenging is this is sort of a relatively new issue for him, but I believe he is going to understand the policy value of criminal justice reform, but also the political value.”

Paul estimated the bill would get 65 to 70 votes in the Senate on Face the Nation Sunday and said it would be “one of the most popular things to ever pass.”

McConnell does not want to bring any legislation to the floor that won’t pass and conservative Republicans, chiefly Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., have vociferously opposed the measure.

Cotton in a USA Today column called the bill “just a misguided effort to let serious felons out of prison.”

He faulted the legislation for not cracking down on deadly drug traffickers and said it “goes soft on some of the worst crimes — trafficking heroin and fentanyl.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, challenged Cotton via Twitter this week, accusing him of spreading “fake news” about the legislation.

Kelley Paul said she had hoped to spend the week of Thanksgiving relaxing and preparing to host 17 people at the family’s home in Bowling Green. Instead, she’s been making the rounds on television shows, trying to whip up public support for the bill.

“I remain hopeful because this polls through the roof among Kentuckians,” Kelley Paul said, referring to an August poll commissioned by the Justice Action Network that found that 70 percent of Kentuckians wanted McConnell to support the measure. She said she believes support has been building as the drug crisis has worsened.

“This is an issue that people do care about, especially with the drug crisis,” she said. “We’re all seeing it decimating whole communities and locking people up for decades has not solved our drug problems, they’ve only gotten worse.”

The drug crisis has led to overcrowded prisons in Kentucky and lawmakers have attempted to take on criminal justice reform at the state level as well.

Bevin, who lost to McConnell in the 2014 Republican primary for senate, has been vocal about his support for criminal justice reform. He often makes trips to Washington D.C. to talk about the issue, including with the president, and has signed executive orders to help former felons return to the work force.

Sen. Julie Raque Adams proposed a “dignity bill” in the Senate, SB 133, which was signed into law and prevents the state from shackling inmates who are pregnant.

But several other provisions in her bill, like raising the standard for what crimes are considered felonies, were cut out of the bill in order for it to pass. A Kentucky House bill that made sweeping changes to the Kentucky justice system also failed to pass.

“I think people are scared by the politics,” said Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, who co-sponsored the criminal justice reform bill in the Kentucky House. “I think legislators think our citizens want them to be what they perceive as tough on crime.”

Harris, though, thinks it can change. She compared the effort to one she made when she worked for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and worked to convince McConnell to support Kentucky’s industrial hemp industry.

“McConnell wasn’t always on board for industrial hemp, we’ve had to work really hard to get him,” Harris said.

Now, a hemp provision in the farm bill has become one of McConnell’s top priorities. He’s received national recognition for his support for industrial hemp, including a write up in Rolling Stone.

“I think this issue could be exactly the same thing for him,” Harris said.